By Matt Cronin
Back in her heyday, before players stopped being intimidated by her wicked smile and crafty game, Martina Hingis won numerous points by skipping inside the court and short-hopping big blasts for winners.
Like most top players, she had hand-eye coordination to die for and before her fellow Swiss Roger Federer became famous for half-volleying forehand winners, she made a living off it against powerful Hall of Famers like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport.
Form 1997 to 1999 when she won all of her five majors, Hingis ran down every ball in sight. She was one of the greatest defensive players ever seen, and could mix in a bit of offense too. But while she was a thinking person’s player, she did not paste the ball with much more authority then than current No. 1 Caroline Woznaciki does today.
In fact, they have similarities, with significantly better backhands than forehands, a willingness to extend opponents until they dropped from exhaustion, marginal serves and consistent returns. Hingis certainly was a better return of server than Wozniacki is now because she read the game better and was very competent at reflexing back returns. She also managed her matches with more acumen and had a better understanding of the X's and O's.
But Wozniacki already has a better serves than Hingis did and is naturally stronger so if she can find a way to add more pace to her forehand and show more guts at the Slams, she should find herself with at least one Slam title in the next year or two. But do not tell the now retired Hingis that “Caro” is even in her class. But the time that the prideful Hingis was 17 she had already won three Grand Slams. Wozniacki just turned 20 and has zilch.
“I think I had more game than her,” Hingis told me at the Mercury Insurance Open in San Diego: "I don’t want to be cocky about this, but I think I had more [weapons]. She’s a great fighter but I out played [opponents] and I took the ball earlier and didn't give them as much time. If she wants to win a Grand Slam, she’s going to have to take charge more. She doesn't have one great weapon. You need that one little extra thing to overcome.”
When I mentioned to Hingis what an extraordinary amount of confidence she had when she came on tour, she immediately shot back that, "you need to win to have confidence.” While Wozniacki was a terrific junior, she was not Hingis, who was already beating solid pros when she was just 14.
“She does the best with what she’s got,” Hingis said of the Dane. “Everyone is saying she hasn’t won a Slam but maybe it’s a question of time. Lately she's struggled more because there are probably more players at the Grand Slams who are better than her.”
Wozniacki will return next week at the tournament in Toronto, hopefully refreshed and ready to make a major push. Despite her poor performances at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it would not be stunning to see her win either Toronto or Cincinnati, as she’s a terrific hard court player who is more comfortable cutting loose at WTA Premier 5 events than she is at the Grand Slams. But it’s at the US Open when she will once again answer the question as to whether she’s worthy of the top spot.
Hingis proved her worth during her 209 non-consecutive weeks in the top spot, even though by 2000, the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capraiti were coming very hard, and Davenport had figured out ways to punch through her. It is often forgotten that Hingis won her first Slam title at the 1997 Australian Open at 16 and her last Slam singles title at the age of 18 in the same locale. What many do recall is that is that by the end of 2002, she was burned out, which is why she took an indefinite break from the Tour.
Recall that when the WTA came up with its excellent age eligibility rule that it was nicknamed the "Capraiti rule". Maybe it should have been nicknamed after Hingis?
The Swiss is now just 30 years old and she looks younger than she did in 2002, when she frequently appeared exhausted, or in the summer of 2007 toward the end of her “second career” when she had just been informed that she had tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon and that her then fiancée, ATP Player Radek Stepanek, had broken off their engagement. During that summer swing in California, Hingis was so desperate for answers that she actually asked the media what she should do with her game. Answers were given but none were accepted because by that point she had absolutely had it with the grind of the tour.
Her comeback was reasonably successful as she won two singles titles and climbed back to No. 6, but it did not satisfy her very high standards.
Now there is a lot of chatter about a possible third comeback so she could play mixed doubles at the 2012 Olympics with Federer. My impression at this point is that it's not going to happen unless Federer rolls out the red carpet for her, because she does not seem excited at the prospect of having to play at least a few months on tour in order to get her ranking back up in order to have a chance of qualifying. She already seems to feel pressure at the prospect, telling me that, “To play with Roger you’d have to being playing great, right?”
I said don’t worry about it, as those two would be so good together that only other phenomenal teams – say the Bryan brothers with the Williams sisters – would stand a chance of beating them, even today with Hingis only competing in pro-ams, senior events and World TeamTennis.
Hingis still has a very large fan base and every single one of them wants to see her make a comeback. Hell, if the 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Date can play top-55 ball, wouldn’t one surmise that Hingis could make a top 20 push at 30?
Maybe, but only if she wanted it really badly and she doesn’t seem to.
“She always been a marathon runner and kept herself in great shape. I don’t do that,” she said with a laugh.
Actually, Hingis is in good shape overall, but she needs to add lot more muscle in order to withstand one three set match after another in singles on tour. As she said, victories in World TeamTennis matches tempt her, but she realizes they play only 5 games, no-ad sets.
Hingis says she has learned to never to say never about comebacks, but the newlywed added that she’s comfortable with her life now, and more excited about new opportunities than she is about chances that she had and either took or let go.
Really, the only way that Hingis is going to play with Federer is if she stages a comeback in doubles. Lisa Raymond, who is still a top doubles player at the age of 36, once told me that Hingis was the best doubles player she ever faced. Clearly, with a good partner, she'd rise up the ranking quickly. You don’t think that she isn’t already better than the current doubles No. 1, the 36-year-old Kveta Peshke? Think very hard again.
But go back to Hingis' statements about Woznaciki and try to catch the tone of her voice. She considers herself an all-time great and to her, all-time greats are no hold barred singles players.
“I was never really just a doubles player; my pride was higher than that,” she said.
Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”